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Blog of Sarah McIntyre, children's book writer & illustrator
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1. see you in edinburgh!

Hey, space cadets! I'm coming up to Edinburgh to do lots of library and school events, all coming together for my big CAKES IN SPACE event at the Edinburgh Book Festival with my co-author Philip Reeve on Saturday!

Hope you can join us! (Ticket details here.)

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2. birthday birthday!

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me! And because it's my birthday, that means all my favourite things: lovely drawings, hats and cake. :D If you're coming to my book party on 13 Sept (I should say, our Cakes in Space party, and you're ALL invited! Click for details.), here's a bit of help if you want to come up with a KILLER CAKE hat! There are lots of ways to make hats, and maybe you'd rather wear a space helmet, but this is one easy way.

Yay, birthday hat! Isn't it lovely?

And check out this amazing Jampire, created by Leilah Skelton!

My ol' studio matey Deadly Knitshade has put together a six-second tutorial: how to make a Killer Cake card! You can see the video here on Vine.

WOW!! Awesome space scooter by How To Make Awesome Comics author Neill Cameron!

Ha ha! Check out this drawing by my Jampires co-author, David O'Connell! :D

I tweeted, in case anyone wanted to draw something, that I'd be thrilled to bits if anyone drew me in a space scooter. Or if that was too tricky, a hamster in a fabulous hat. Look, Damiyanti Patel got my space costume just right, as well as drawing a killer-cake-led scooter!

SPACE DODGEMS. Fab drawing by Ric Lumb. :D

And speaking of that fab space costume, here's the woman who put it together, costumier Wendy Benstead! She was just in the middle of sketching designs for a client and tackled a Sarah hamster. :D

I think 'Fluff on a Rocket' should become a new exclamation, really. This in from the most excellent Jared Shurin:

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3. comics jamming at london world con

Last Friday I went to the huge international Science Fiction convention that is World Con, this year hosted right in my hometown! (And somewhat confusingly, also called < ahref="http://www.loncon3.org/">LonCon3</a>.) And I saw some familiar faces right away! Spot the family who were in my Nine Worlds convention blog post from the previous weekend... (The lady in the excellent Vivien of Holloway dress is Adela Terrell.)

And since I was going to lead a Comics Jam session, I wore my best Jampires dress! And brought along my beautiful new Jampire friend, knitted as a surprise by Ann Lam. Poor little Jampire; World Con was a BIG PLACE and he couldn't find jam anywhere, just post-apocalyptic landscape.

First photo tweeted by @ExLibrisNora

Meanwhile, I was schmoozing it up in the Green Room with writer Emma Newman in her amazing red frock coat. Wait, check it out, the Green Room at the Excel Centre was in this crazy pod on stilts. Funnily enough, I also sat right by George RR Martin in there, but since I don't watch or read Game of Thrones;, the experience was a bit wasted on me and I chatted with fab Hannah Berry instead. Cons are like that for me, I don't know any of the people I'm supposed to know, because I never get a chance to WATCH TELLY.

So for the Comics Jam session, I brought along a range of indie/self-published comics, a mix of work by adults and kids, to show to the group. And I talked about how writing and drawing are one thing, but making their own books is even better, because they can learn how a whole book is put together, practice the form, and play around a bit with marketing it, designing covers, etc.

Here we are, in the midst of the Comics Jam, everyone working on panel number three at the same time.

And a couple of the comics we came up with, each panel drawn by a different person:

One of the dads in particular was very interested in helping his son find out more about making comics, and I was hugely pleased to be able to recommend Neill Cameron's brand-new book, How to Make Awesome Comics. In the past, I've recommended Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, but I find Scott's book has a bit too much advanced technical theory for younger kids, say, under 10 or 12. Neill's book is a wonderful gap-filler and I know I will be recommending it often. (You can buy it here from The Phoenix Comic online shop, among lots of other great kid-appropriate comics.)

Oh, and as a side-note, Scott McCloud will be a special guest this October at the Lakes Internation Comic Art Festival in Kendal, which I'll be attending. Neill does lots of workshops at the Story Museum in Oxford and elsewhere, so keep an eye on his website events page.

If anyone from the Comics Jam is looking for guidance specifically on running more Comics Jams, I've created a guide with my Jampires picture book co-author David O'Connell on our Jampires.com website.

Click here to read more

I also spoke on another panel on art, and then went to see Audrey Niffenegger give the English PEN H.G. Wells talk. I sat next to Sophie Lyons, who'd studied on Audrey's novel writing course in Chicago. Audrey talked about Wells' short story The Door in the Wall, which I managed to find and read online late that night. It's like a dark inversion of one of my childhood favourites, The Secret Garden, about a man who once finds a wonderous door to a garden and then spends the rest of his life yearning for that garden; he's unable to find the door, except at the most inopportune times, when he feels he can't take time to walk through it. Good stuff.

And here are some of the LonCon team! There's Maura McHugh, Erin Horáková, James Bacon and Esther MacCalum-Stewart, and they all looked after me very well. Thanks so much!

I knew Maura from trips to Ireland, where she had hosted me when I spoke to the Dublin chapter of Laydeez Do Comics. Maura does loads of things, but you might know her for the famous list she made of currently practicing female comic artists in the UK and Ireland... Ah, and I see she's widened it to Wome in Comics in Europe! You can follow her on Twitter as @splinister.

I made a quick foray into the Dealers Hall and saw the art exhbition, and was particularly pleased to see my ol' studio mate Ellen Lindner's books on display at the Soaring Penguin table, manned by John Anderson and Nora Goldberg.

So my experience doesn't even begin to encompass the vast scale of the con, and it ran for five days. But I was glad to have a little window into it, for the day I was there. Thanks, Maura and James, for inviting me to be a part of it!

I'll leave you with a few more of the Comics Jams.

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4. cakes in space launch party!

Hurrah! You're all invited to celebrate the blast-off of my new book with Philip Reeve,

Sept 13th: We having a Saturday morning family-friendly celebration at central London's gorgeous Daunt Books Marylebone, where you'll get to hear the Cakes in Space song, see the highly scientific Nom-O-Tron in action, and learn how to draw a robot! Bring your kids or come by yourself, dress up in space gear or come just as you are, it'll all be good fun. But do be sure to book your place, either by e-mailing Daunt Books at orders@dauntbooks.co.uk or calling them at 020 7224 2295. Here's the Cakes in Space Facebook party page, if you want to let us know if you're coming (but you'll still need to contact Daunt Books).

Now for a little peek at Cakes in Space, to whet your appetite. The book starts with Astra and her family, who are travelling to the far-off planet of Nova Mundi. It's going to take 199 years to get there, and Astra's understandably a bit nervous! But her parents reassure her that they'll all be sleeping in freezer pods, and will wake up when they arrive, as though the trip were only a single night. (Philip and I thought that there aren't enough cryonics in children's books.)

Here you can see an advert for marvellous Nova Mundi.

Astra and her family must first take a shuttle...

... and at last arrive at the mothership.

You may think I was drawing tech the whole time in this book, but you'll find some leafy scenes when Astra and her robot friend, Pilbeam, discover the ship's herbarium.

Astra shouldn't even be awake, but things on the ship have gone very wrong after she tampered with the food machine. Oh look, some aliens!

And that malfunctioning food machine - the Nom-O-Tron? Well, I just have two words for you... KILLER CAKES. Get ready for the CAKES IN SPACE. And yes, the book does contain a high-power spork battle.

See you at the party! If you can't come to that, have a peek at my Events Page, where you can see if Philip and I might be coming to your area and can sign and doodle in your book.

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5. how to draw anansi: new video!

Remember when I posted this 'How to Draw Anansi' sheet?

Well, the Summer Reading Challenge have put up a video from my studio where I draw it for you, and talk you through it! And I also give you a little look at the two books I have coming out this autumn: Cakes in Space with Philip Reeve and Jampires with David O'Connell.

Click here to read my earlier blog post about Anansi, and here to download the drawing sheet as a PDF. And don't forget, if you're age 12 or younger, there's still time to enter the Medusa Malarky comics competition! The final deadline is Sept 8th.

Still don't know about the Summer Reading Challenge? It's not too late to take part! Click here to find out more.

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6. apologies, apologies... and the importance of play

My last blog post was full of fun doodles and as I was writing the text, I started coming out with what I've written in this blog post. But looking at it - such a fun, light, blog post - I thought, no. I don't even want these words sitting together with it, as a sort of apology. There's nothing wrong with having a bit of a play while I'm working, no matter how busy I am. I shouldn't have to taint every bit of fun with an apology or explanation. But often I feel like I ought to.

Dear Sarah, I've noticed on Twitter that you've had some extra time to draw. I was wondering if you could make a drawing for my charity? Perhaps a drawing of a ________, since that is the charity mascot. If you could send it by next week, that would be wonderful.

That's a made-up e-mail, but it looks like several e-mails sitting right now in my Inbox. And because of these, I feel the imagined pressure from the much larger stack of other unanswered e-mail requests, even though I know I shouldn't.

One thing that really gets my back up is that when people see me on Twitter or my blog, making these light sketches, they assume I have lots of extra time and contact me, pointing out this observation, and requesting items for charity, a free drawing for their child, etc. I'm actually a bit frantic about my deadline, but if I get too worked up, I just shut down and can't do anything. There are certain things I need to do, just to keep my brain working right, and my creativity going.

If my creativity dries up, that's the end of my job. These things I do can look a lot like play - they are play - but it doesn't mean I have any shortage of things to do. I might even want to see my husband sometimes, or have a weekend. Blogging takes time, but it helps me process what I've been getting up to, so I don't get overwhelmed as everything swirls into an unmanageable, half-remembered blur.

I've reluctantly had to start turning down all requests to do any more events this year. If you could come along to the events I'm already doing, that would be WONDERFUL. If you catch me at an event, there's a lot more chance you might get a spur-of-the-moment sketch, and I usually make a little drawing when I sign books. Even Summer Reading Challenge library events; I'd genuinely love to visit every library in Britain, but if I take any more days out of my schedule, I won't have any new books.

Please, please don't send me any more requests for drawings to send to charity right now. I've been getting an overwhelming amount of requests recently and can't even stay on top of the e-mails. It makes me feel a bit panicky, thinking people might assume my lack of reply shows coldness from me, or that I don't think their charity is important. They are very important, I just can't deal with the sheer volume. Opening my Inbox feels like walking down the Strand in London, dodging chuggers. Except imagine that all those charity people in their branded vests are nice people you know at least a little bit, quite possibly volunteers, you know that they're working hard themselves, and most likely they've done helpful things for you so you feel you owe them a favour. How long do you think it would take you to walk down the road?

If I had staff who could answer the e-mail, put the paper in front of me and whisk it away and take care of posting it after I finished, that would be one thing.

But as it is, a single 'simple' request can take more than an hour to deal with: doing the 5-minute sketch, finding packaging, addressing it, walking it over to the not-very-nearby post office, walking back. People give me lots of tips - get an intern, hire staff, take everything at once to the post office, etc - but I can't really deal with all that right now. Taking on staff requires time - I'd need to manage them and look after them - not to mention cost. (Don't mention interns; they take more time than you would think, and there's physically no space for them to sit in the studio.) I really just need to get on with my work and send out a mass apology if I haven't answered your e-mail.

I feel a bit weird that I feel I need to apologise for doing what I want with my own time, but the issue keeps coming up. And I remember all the years of when no one wanted me to do anything at all, that was hard in a different way. I wish there was some balance, a middle ground, it seems like it's either all or nothing in book world.

So yes, you may see me 'playing', and it's not saying that these requests aren't all important, perhaps even more important. But I just need to do it.

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7. nerd paint tips

I've been working hard painting a picture book, and I've started posting occasional painting tips, techniques that come to mind while I encounter them in my own work. I tweet them with the hash tag #NerdPaintTips.

'How to paint an iced lolly' was a request from Jonathan L. Howard and Martin Hand, after I'd posted this little tutorial:

Often when I'm working on a big complicated picture, I start to lose perspective on it and, in a way, forget the basics of drawing. It can really help to back away and draw something else, something silly, or something with a loose line. Something that doesn't matter how it turns out, and no one's told me to do it, so it doesn't feel like an assignment. Here's a loose self-portrait, that only looks a little bit like me:

And I tweeted that I'd draw the next person who tweeted their photo at me. Here's Alice Nuttall:

And one more, for Gillian Cross:

That was fun. :)

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8. nine worlds geekfest

This weekend I went to my first Nine Worlds Geekfest! I did four events, but my big one was introducing CAKES IN SPACE, my brand-new book with Philip Reeve, and Oxford University Press came up with some pre-launch copies just for the convention. Philip and I performed in costume, of course.

And we certainly weren't the only ones who dressed up! My studio mate Lauren O'Farrell had knitted a giant hammer just for the occasion. Here she is with a sword-bearing Andrew Coulson on the bridge. The hotel (the Radisson Blu Edwardian Heathrow) was cool; it had lots of bridges, glassy atriums, waterfalls, ponds and strange air ducts.

Photo from Lauren's Instagram

Of course, I was on the lookout for good hats, as always.

One of the great things about this year's Nine Worlds is that the organisers made a huge effort to make it welcoming and accessible to everyone, including children and famiilies. (That isn't always the case at conventions.) I was very pleased to arrive and find I had one SUPER FAN, who went absolutely wild with joy when she found out I was there. Here's Katie. I had so much fun walking into rooms and hearing her cry out, 'LOOK! IT'S SARAH MCINTYRE!!!!' I stayed overnight and in the morning, I'd planned to meet up with a bunch of people for breakfast. But I didn't realise that there were three different breakfast rooms, missed everyone, and had breakfast with Katie instead. Which was great. Here are our TOAST FACES. You can see more photos posted by her dad, Martin Hand, over on his Flickr set.

Publisher Gollancz hosted a party on Saturday evening called 'Promnado', where I got to meet writer Emma Newman, about whom I'd heard so much from Philip Reeve (who'd been on a panel with her at Bristol Con). I found out that she's recorded a series of podcasts, in a sort of gameshow format, called Tea and Jeopardy, and I'm looking forward to listening to them. And here she is with Gareth L. Powell, who was on a panel with me about Food in Science Fiction. Gareth was great; whenever things got a bit heavy, he'd crack a joke and have everyone laughing. Made me want to read his books.

The crowd was slightly different than my usual crowd: some of the comics people, a couple people from children's books, but mostly SF and fantasy people I didn't know. Which was cool, it's nice to branch out. The atmosphere felt a bit more politically charged than gatherings I go to, more along the lines of Laydeez Do Comics in the way people talk very academically of social issues, and it made me a little bit want to come out and say very un-PC things, just to be ornery. But most of the time it was great to see people being included so carefully. Although occasionally it was hard to maintain eye contact with everyone, ha ha...

For my CAKES IN SPACE event with Philip, it was the first time we'd run through it, since we can't really practice, when I'm in London and he's in Dartmoor. But it seemed to go pretty well, and the next time we'll be doing it is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 23 Aug. At the end, I taught everyone how to draw Pilbeam the robot, one of the stars of the book.

Our audience was younger than our usual events, but I was impressed how even the youngest kids seemed able to follow along. And fun to see their parents drawing along with them. That's so important to me, seeing kids and adults drawing side by side. It makes the kids feel much more proud of what they're doing, and often surprises the adults, who might have thought they couldn't draw.

I can't remember her name, but the lady in the tiara here was one of the people who organised the children's activities and kept them all happy and busy. It cracked me up, watching her Spider-man son racing up and down the corridor in her high-heeled shoes.

One of the costume-related activities revolved around some blue plastic chips. Everyone got some in their registration pack and we could give them to people whose costumes we admired. At first I thought it was a bit weird, but then I came to realise it was a great way for shy people to tell other people they looked good, without worrying the other person would think they were hitting on them, or that they might be saying something inappropriate.

This Sharknado costume was pretty impressive. Sharnado Boy Max Edwards came along to the Comics Monsterclass I led with Philip Reeve. Our adult group was nicely mixed; some professional comics people with people who had never made comics. Philip and I gave them some tips for drawing comics, then led them in a four-panel Comics Jam. It's a bit like Consequences or Chinese Whispers: everyone spends five minutes drawing the first panel, we all pass our papers to the left and pick up with panel 2 on the next comics. So we ended up with a bunch of comics where each panel was drawn by a different person.

I'm coming out with a picture book this autumn, JAMPIRES, that's based on a Comics Jam I did with my friend David O'Connell. We've posted a guide to taking part and leading Comics Jams on our Jampires website: www.jampires.com. Feel free to print out the guide and use it if you want to do this with your friends, family, school, etc.

Some more people photos. Here's writer Sophia McDougall! I briefly reviewed her book Mars Evacuees at the end of this previous blog post; I really enjoyed it, and it's suitable for kids, perhaps slightly older than Cakes in Space.

Some more fine folk at Promnado: Emma Price, Andrew Ruddick, Simon Gurr and Emma Vieceli.

The best bit about Promnado was seeing Philip in EYE MAKEUP, with BLUE STREAKS in his hair. I'd already seen him wear blue lipstick at our pre-launch party, but... BLUE LIPSTICK. Ha ha, so awesome.

Before he got all spaced up, we ran into ,a href=http://jabberworks.livejournal.com/data/"http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/">Joanne Harris</a> (author of Chocolat, among other books), who'd just finished speaking on a panel. I follow her on Twitter - @joannechocolat - and she often says things that make me think.

Another person I love following on Twitter is @EwaSR (Ewa, pronounced 'ever'), and I discovered she's even taller than I am! By an inch. And she never fails to dig up the most interesting stuff on the Internet.

Another fun thing was getting to meet Emma Vieceli's collaborative comics partner, writer Malin Rydén, who'd come specially from Sweden. They're posting their comic BREAKS online as they go, then printing it up at the end. Here they are with a printed prologue.

So much of the hotel was nice, and the event spaces friendly, that this one anomaly threw me for a loop. Such a weird room, with a vending machine that didn't accept money.

Huge thanks to writer Danie Ware for hosting us at the Forbidden Planet table and stocking Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs.

And an enormous round of applause for Jared Shurin and Anne Perry, the driving force behind Nine Worlds. (They were dressed up for the other days; sorry for catching you on the one day you were in civies, guys!) They are truly amazing people. Thanks for inviting me, Anne and Jared! And thanks to the big team who made everything go so smoothly.

My next events - on Friday - are at World Con, otherwise known as LonCon3, and you can find out more over on their website here.

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9. charlie and the chocolate box covers

I'm seeing so much furore in book world over this new Penguin cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

Of course, the illustrators immediately have to jump in, doing joke reboots of their own books. Here's my studio mate Gary Northfield, who started it off:

And I added a few more:

A lot of people hate this Penguin cover. Here's Penguin's response (and my short response) in The Bookseller article by Charlotte Eyre. But it raises a lot of interesting points. Why do people hate it?

1. Because it's not the 'original cover'. Why fix it when it ain't broke?

Here's a comment on The Telegraph article about it:

But what is 'the original' cover? A lot of people have been mentioning Quentin Blake, but the first time I read it, it wasn't a Blake cover or illustrations. I don't even remember the illustrator, just that it was much more dense, cross-hatched drawing. That's who I associate with the book.

2. Why detract from 'the whole childhood innocence of the storyline'?

Guys, I hate to break it to you, but Roald Dahl one was one sick puppy. And you know what? Your kids are, too. Not in an unnatural way, just in a way that they like seeing vengeance enacted on people who aren't nice. They don't always want clean, caring solutions to problems, they want to see other people GET WHAT THEY DESERVE, watch them squirm. I loved some of Dahl's books as a kid (NOT Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator - that one gave me the heebie jeebies) and I love them now. I was a Roald Dahl Funny Prize judge. But Dahl's stories have some very dark, often cruel themes, and people misbehave very badly, and get away with it.

You might have cosy, vague memories of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a story about a group of kids and their parents who get to venture into a wonderful, magical kingdom of sweets, presided over by a sort of Santa figure. Nope, it's not like that. Or that's not all of it. Think again: an eccentric inventor brings select children - mostly rich ones, because statistically they had a better chance of winning his competition - into his factory, cut off from the norms of society, police, medical workers, etc. He gradually picks them off, punishing the horrid children who have all become that way because their parents are equally vile. In the real world, his punishments would have killed them all, but they survive their various tortures, using strange forms of his own medicine, which in one case, involves stretching a shrunken child on something like a rack. In the end, it's the one poor kid left, who had a decent upbringing, and he gets to start the cycle all over again if he so wishes.

This is not a nice, cosy story. And I like that the new cover makes me remember this.

3. This sexualised image is totally inappropriate.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. This image isn't any more sexualised than the dolls you see being marketed to children every day in shops. And the children in the story are, in a way, dolls of their parents. They haven't been able to rise out of their parents' mean-ness, and everything's exacerbated by their new-found fame. But this cover does make the book something I wouldn't buy for a child as a present. I'd be worried they wouldn't see the irony in it. This book is aimed only at adults, and if a shop is going to stock it, they'd need to stock two books. Do they want to give it that much shelf space? That's a business question.

4. It's too vague: it doesn't show what's in the book.

This is actually my least favourite point. When designers get scared, they go for the most straightforward solutions to covers: stick the main characters on the cover. Do the obvious. When I talk with kids about book/comic design, I ask them what's the most important thing about their cover. They usually say that it reflect what's in the book. I tell them that this is partly right. But even more important, it's that their cover makes someone take the book off the shelf, open it to look inside, and check it out of the library or buy it. It has to zing, it has to engage, it has to stand out from the millions of books out there, it has to make people want to find out more. Lots of people are talking about this book, so on one level, it has succeeded. Would they buy it? This is yet to be seen. I'm half-tempted to buy it myself, as a sort of souvenir.

I was interested to see this posted on my Facebook feed, from Penguin US, a very, VERY literal rendition of the cover:

I'm not sure I like that. I think I would have liked it as a kid for its comics-bookish appearance, but as an adult, it feels like a sort of corporate mapping exercise. If we only get literal covers, we're going to miss out on some of the ethereal, can't-put-your-finger-on-it beauties, such as Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. That cover is incredibly brave and wonderful, but the US editors decided it would be safer and more marketable to go with the main characters on the front. Both are good, but I'm so glad the original cover happened. It's a curious wonder of design (by Ness Wood, working with Dave Shelton and David Fickling Books; Ness also designed Morris the Mankiest Monster and Jampires). Dave's original cover creates a mood, rather than giving you obvious information about the book, and this is what the Penguin cover sets out to do.

5. Why do we even have to put adult covers on children's books?

I'm not sure about this, that's a problem I've never really understood, why some adults don't like to be seen reading children's books. And why publishers are finding a market in that. Maybe some adults think all children's books are boringly safe and cosy, and they'd be wrong, but a lot of the covers might not even be reflecting what's inside, they're TOO sweet to be true. Books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are pretty dark, actually. But if there's money in selling books with overly sweet covers, overly adults covers... well, I want to see the stories get out there. It gives more work to designers, illustrators and photographers. If you don't like this cover, don't buy it. I suspect several people will have their nostalgia tweaked by hating this cover and go off and buy another version.

So do I like the cover? I'm not sure. And that's what I like about it, that it's making me think, and remember the darker aspects of the story. Children's books SHOULD make us think, and ask questions. And I want publishers to take risks. TAKE RISKS. Make people think, discuss, ask questions. Taking risks isn't the natural way of things in children's books, especially when good ideas have gone through the wringers of sales and marketing meetings. You wouldn't believe the sorts of discussions that go on in there. I stand up for books that aren't bland, books that make us think, and that means mistakes are inevitable. And a 'mistake' depends on who's talking. A commercial mistake? A moral mistake? A mistake of taste?

In The Bookseller article, it quotes the Penguin spokesperson saying:

"What has added to the upset stems from the way readers associate certain books with certain covers. Any deviation from the norm – in the form of a new cover – is an affront to their own experience of the book."

No. We're not clear.

Why would I want edgy stories to be lost in the fog of fluffy chocolate-box nostalgia? There are a lot of reasons I might not like this cover, and several reasons I do; we're not clear, and I'm glad about this.

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10. all abuzz about gary's garden!

Oo, what's all that rustling and buzzing in the garden? It's a whole cast of characters from Gary Northfield's new comic book, GARY'S GARDEN, published by David Fickling Books and out today!

We at the Fleece Station studio are super-proud of Gary, who's been working so hard to make his amazing weekly comic strips for The Phoenix Comic. And now he's packaged up a whole bunch of them into a beautiful volume.

I love Gary's Garden so much. The little conversations between the insects make me laugh. It's masterfully drawn with such expressive, energetic line and a welcoming colour palette that pulls you right into the garden. Oh, and extra bonus, Gary even has a few cameos in it!

Our studio mate Elissa Elwick and I are wearing floral shrubbery on our heads to celebrate.

Check it out, who couldn't love all these cute animals running round having adventures? This book will be incredibly versatile, as it's kid-friendly but also appeals to grownups; perfect for any library collection, from primary school to adult. And it makes a great all-ages gift for any of your friends who love gardening, nature, or bugs. ...Say, you get your friend/partner/parent some boringly domestic thing for their birthday, such as gardening gloves or a spade. Why not stick a copy of Gary's Garden into the prezzie to dress it up and make it fun?

This panel made me smile, because it reminds me of working when no one's in the studio: I often think of jokes with no one to share them with. That's the great thing about having Gary and Elissa around, we can try out the funny bits in our books on each other, and generally muck around. So much better than when I used to work alone at home.

Gary's stuck with me at the studio since we set it up five years ago and he's the best-ever person to work alongside. He works incredibly hard on his books and his strips for The Phoenix and other publications, but then he'll take little breaks to have a laugh; we have a good rhythm and I've even come to love the same music.

You can see on the contents page how the book's broken down into little bite-size stories. Perfect for the reluctant reader, who might find a couple pages a real achievement. And hey look, it's dedicated to Ben Sharpe, our lovely editor from DFC and early Phoenix Comic days. (We once made him a whole personalised version of The Phoenix.)

And special surprise... you haven't missed the Gary's Garden launch party! The book comes out today, but Gary's celebrating on Thurs, 4 September at the lovely Bookseller Crow bookshop in Crystal Palace, south London. We had his Teenytinysaurs book launch there and it was ace. Do come along! If you want a reminder or to ask questions, you can sign up to the event Facebook page here.

And don't just take my word for it that Gary's Garden is amazing, check out this review by Richard Bruton on the Forbidden Planet International blog!

And you can buy Gary's Garden right here, from the Phoenix Comic shop.

The other exciting books out today are How to Make Awesome Comics by Neill Cameron and Long Gone Don by the Etherington Brothers! But I haven't yet seen copies of them, so stay posted... Read the rest of this post

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11. watch your back, it's a jam attack!!!

Have you heard what's lurking just around the corner???

Photo by David Warren

Have you ever bitten into a jam doughnut and thought, HEY! What happened to all the JAM??! Well... that jam was stolen... SUCKED OUT, in fact, by some mischievous little characters, called...


Gorgeous knitted Jampire created by Ann Lam. More about this soon....

And Jampires love nothing more than - you got it - JAM!

The stickier the jam, the better! Our publicist Philippa Perry teamed us up with local jam-makers at The Butch Institute to get this custom-made raspberry and vanilla jam with added sparkles.

Photo by David Warren

THE PICTURE BOOK: So my fabulous friend David O'Connell and I have written a picture book for you in rhyming verse, published by David Fickling, and we're very excited about it!

JAMPIRES will emerge hot out of the oven at the beginning of September, and it's not your usual book. Most picture books are written by one person and illustrated by the other. But Dave and I are both writer and illustrators, and for this book, we were completely co-writers and co-illustrators. AND we got our inspiration through comics! The story game we played together to come up with the idea is called a 'Comics Jam', and we loved how our Comics Jam was also about jam!

THE COMIC: Our picture book started out as this collaborative comic, and you can read the original version here on our BRAND-NEW JAMPIRES WEBSITE, designed by multi-talented Dave.

This Jampires website is absolutely JAM-PACKED with things to explore and activities to make and do. Have a browse!

JAMPIRES is mainly a picture book, but we did print up a small number of Comics Jam comics, which you might be able to get from us if you come to our events.

EVENTS: These events include Sat, 30 August at The Big Feastival in Oxfordshire; we may be able to provide you with some at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal on the 18th & 19th of Oct; our event on Tues, 28 Oct at Oxford's Story Museum (details here); we'll be running a whole Jampires Comics Jamtastic activity area at the awesome Thought Bubble comics festival in Leeds on 15 & 16 Nov.

You'll be hearing more from us about JAMPIRES, our hymn to jam - only a few more weeks until it comes out! - and in the meantime, spread the word (spread it thickly!), so no one misses out on this jammy treat. You can follow us on Twitter at @davidoconnell and @jabberworks, hash tag #JAMPIRES! Here's Dave's blog post about it!

Photo by David Warren

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12. three upcoming books I'm excited about

I have two books launching this autumn: Cakes in Space with Philip Reeve and Jampires with David O'Connell. But there are three other books I'm really looking forward to:

1. Gary's Garden by Gary Northfield. I've watched Gary at the next desk over in the studio, putting together these comics for his regular strip in The Phoenix Comic and they're brilliant. His drawings have so much energy, his jokes are wonderfully zany, his colours are beautiful, and he creates such a funny and engaging little world down among the grass of his back garden. Get ready for lots of insect-based adventures. Gary's also brilliant at doing comics events with kids. His previous book The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs was my Summer Reading Challenge 'Pass It On' book recommendation. Gary's Garden launches with David Fickling Books on 7 Aug.

2. The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis. I adored Rob's beautiful and clever adaptation of Don Quixote and his drawings in the Horrible Histories books are nationally well-loved. This upcoming book sounds like something strange and wonderful, possibly not like anything at all that I've ever read. I travelled to the Hay Festival in Wales once in a van with Rob, and he told me stories from his childhood - running around with a pack of other near-feral boys - and gosh, has that guy seen a few things. It sounds like this book will be touching on some of them, and I'm fascinated to see how he'll do it. Here's a bit more information on the SelfMadeHero website. I suspect this book will be appropriate for teenagers and adults, not children. Launches on 16 Oct.

3. How to Make Awesome Comics by Neill Cameron. Neill does amazing comics workshops and knows that when kids start making comics, they run wild with drawing and writing. Librarians, teachers, parents, TAKE NOTE. There's no better way to get your kids reading than to get them making comics. Suddenly they see words as useful tools in telling their stories, grab them off the shelves and get to work with enthusiasm. Neill's book will have loads of comic-making tips, story starters and other jumping-off points to help in crafting good comics stories. This book really needed to happen; I recommend Scott McCloud's books about making comics to adults, but there hasn't really been a good book I could get behind that's accessible to kids as well as adults. And now there will be! An absolute MUST for every library. Launches with David Fickling Books on 7 Aug.

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13. unicorn cat

I've seen some great Silly Unicorns tweeted in after The Guardian posted my Summer Reading Challenge How-to-Draw guide. I'll post more later, but one of them inspired me to draw this:

Here's the original Silly Unicorn, on the left, that inspired me, tweeted by @carol_mcgovern in Ireland. She painted the lovely one on the right. But something about her daughter's block colouring and shapes really stuck with me.

And here's the budding artist, who's also done a There's a Shark in the Bath picture. She's on a roll!

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14. summer reading challenge: draw a silly unicorn!

Check out The Guardian gallery today! It features one of the characters nearly a million children around the country will have on their Summer Reading Challenge mythical maze poster, Silly Unicorn!

Grab a piece of paper and something to draw with and click over to The Guardian website. And if you get the chance, tweet a photo of your drawing with the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag. Grownups welcome, too!

It's been so fun seeing people dress up for the Summer Reading Challenge! Check out this Unicorn, tweeted by Cambridgeshire Libraries of staff member Jenna Lawrence. Love it!

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15. chichester mini break

So I have this big looming picture book deadline and a couple weeks ago Stuart kindly said, 'Do you want to cancel our little trip to Chichester?' And I said, 'NO!' because, you know, PRIORITIES. And it was great! Stuart often comes along to book festivals with me, but I'm running around doing events, so it's not really the same as going away on holiday.

I thought it was going to be more of a relaxing trip, but we ended up cycling 63 miles over three days; Stuart clocked it on his little bike mile counter thingie. Chichester is a great area for cycling, lots of little paths through the wheat fields and by the sea.

We even cycled a little bit through the sea when we reached Bosham at high tide (pronounced BOZZ'um, we finally worked out).

One of the only things I knew about Chichester is that amazing illustrator Warwick Johnson Cadwell runs boat tours there (Chichester Harbour Water Tours), so we met up with him down at Itchenor Harbour and went along for a ride. I knew about this because almost every day he posts his 'Passenger of the Day' sketch on his Instagram. Actually, we missed the boat on the first day because it took longer than we thought to cycle from Chichester, so we saw him two days.

Warwick's kids used to read my comics when I was drawing Vern and Lettuce, so they knew about me a little, and it was fun getting to sit in The Ship Inn by the harbour and draw with them. And look, I got to be Passenger of the Day!! :D

Hester and I drew each other and I LOVE her drawing. It's stylised in a very cool way.

Willy and I drew all sorts of things: dragons, Slender Man, etc, but here are doodles of Warwick and him:

Stuart was rather excited because Keith Richards was sitting at a nearby table, wahey.

And a snapshot of a rough sketch I made of Warwick ('Skipper of the Day') and Hester on the boat.

Hester was making a comic (cover shown here) and was already making good progress on it by the time we docked. Thanks so much for meeting up, Warwick! You can follow him on Twitter as @WarwickJC. (He drew Young Tank Girl for the new Moose Kid Comics.)

On another day, Stuart and I cycled over to the Witterings (isn't that a great name?) and visited the famous beach at West Wittering. Oh MY, was that car park packed! It took us something like ten minutes to cycle from one end to the other; there must have been 10,000 people at the beach that day. The car park was so dreadful that we almost left, but then when we locked up our bikes and walked over the dune, suddenly the beach opened up, and it was so big that it didn't feel crowded anymore, and we could see why people love going there. I didn't take a photo of the whole beach, but here's a view of some of those little sandworm piles that used to freak me out when I was a kid. They look like little poos, or brains or something. And we spotted some Sarcastic Seaweed, just like you find in Oliver and the Seawigs.

A few more snapshots. I'm not a very good landscape photographer and these didn't come out half as good as they look in real life. But then I put a spooky filter on them and suddenly they looked kind of dramatic, like a horror film, so there you go. (It didn't really look like a horror film.)

While we were in the Witterings, we stopped by to see my fabulous publicist Philippa Perry, who lives in East Wittering. She has a cat named Frodo who looks SO much like the cat I had growing up. The cat and I jumped on the trampoline together and I was quite smitten.

So a good holiday, and Stuart loved getting so many chances to ride his bike; I got a terribly sore bum from that, but the countryside around there is so beautiful that it was worth it, ow OW.

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16. oliver and the seawigs launches in the usa!

The Sea Monkeys are loose in America!!! My book with Philip Reeve, Oliver and the Seawigs launches with Random House TODAY!! Seawigs is being published in 20 countries now, but how will it fare in the place where I grew up? ...I am SO CURIOUS.

Sea Monkey knitting pattern by Deadly Knitshade... Know anyone who knits? You can download yours free here!

I'm originally from Seattle, and growing up near beaches and tidepools did play a major part in the creation of our story.

Here's a drawing I made as a kid of the rocks near Cannon Beach, in Oregon, where our family used to go on vacation almost every year. (You might also recognise it as the setting from the 1985 film The Goonies.)

I drew some of the inspiration for the setting of Oliver and the Seawigs from my family visits to the fishing village of Seldovia, in Alaska. Here you can see the Crisp family house, supported on stilts and wooden pilings.

And here are some of my drawings from Alaska. I showed Philip these drawings when we were still coming up with the story idea, and we both thought it looked like the perfect place for our tale.

My Japanese-Hawaiian uncle's family owns one of the stilted cottages in Seldovia and I love watching otters swim by, and bald eagles swoop down and steal fish from the seagulls.

Another American influence comes from my dad's love of mountaineering. (Mr Crisp looks a little bit like my dad - mostly the nose and ears - and little Oliver is already an exploration pro by the age of ten.) When my sister and I each turned 16, climbing Mt Rainier - the huge snowy peak overlooking Seattle - was very much our coming-of-age activity. We were well-trained in using climbing harnesses and practiced hanging from trees in prusik slings to simulate what might happen if we fell down an icy crevasse.

Ha ha, see that little mountain goat? My sister and I used to laugh at them because they would follow us around, trying to lick up our pee. (For the salt, apparently, but... yuck!)

So what is a Seawig, you might rightly ask? Well, when you see an island, keep in mind that not all of them stay in the same place all the time. Some of them are Rambling Isles, which hunker under the water with only the tops of their heads showing, and look a bit like giants when they stand up! And they love collecting stuff on their heads, and take great pride in all the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on their shores. (Shipwrecks are particularly fashionable.)

You can find out a bit more about Oliver and the Seawigs in this video with Philip Reeve and me, filmed in my London studio. For part of it, I'm wearing a Marie-Antoinette-style Seawig I made our of saran wrap/cling film, but you can see a MUCH LARGER version here, heh heh.

Oliver and the Seawigs - Meet the creators from MB Films on Vimeo.

And learn how to draw a Sea Monkey! (You can also download a printable step-by-step guide from my website.)

Oliver and the Seawigs - How to draw a Sea Monkey from MB Films on Vimeo.

You can also watch the Oliver and the Seawigs trailer and a little puppet show with Oliver and Iris the mermaid!

If you or a friend get a chance to knit a Sea Monkey, I'd love to see it. Tweet a picture to Philip (@philipreeve1) and me (@jabberworks), using the hash tag #Seawigs, and we'll go EEP! EEP! with excitement. :D You can also find me on Facebook here, and Philip right here.

We hope you like the book! If you'd like to see my earlier Seawigs blog posts, and peek at some awesome things other people have made, you can click here.

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17. summer reading challenge: draw anansi!

Try your hand at drawing Anansi, one of the Mythical Maze characters in the Summer Reading Challenge! It's easy, if you do it step by step:

If you'd like to print it out for your library (or to use at home, or at work - adults can try it, too!), you can download a PDF here.

Some background: When I was planning out the Mythical Maze characters, some of them changed quite a bit from my original sketches. But not Anansi, I think I nailed him with my first drawing. I taped this bit of paper to the wall of my studio:

Anansi's an African trickster god, and the god of stories. When you think of spiders, you think of dusty corners and cobwebs. But I'd been reading a Telegraph article about men in the Congo who live in quite rough places, but take great pride in dressing very smartly. The basic philosophy of the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo: to defy circumstance and live with joie de vivre. I liked the idea of making Anansi a very dapper chap. Thus, the yellow hat, cool glasses and spats.

I've heard storytellers tell tales of Anansi - he comes very much from an oral tradition of storytelling - but I can think of two books I've read about him. I grew up with Anansi the Spider, the picture book by Gerald McDermott, and much later I read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Two books couldn't be more different, but they're both inspired by the same mythical character, and I'm sure the two books (and newspaper article) inspired me.

But those are just two Anansi books, there must be lots more. Can you tell me about any other top Anansi books or comics? Leave a note in the comments if you know of one, a really good one!

Why not try writing your own Anansi story? What sort of tricksy adventures would your Anansi get up to? Can you use spiderwebs as part of the design for your book cover or comic? Your setting could feel very African, or you could show Anansi right where you are, maybe in your home, at the shops, at a funfair, or even as far away as the moon. You can draw Anansi more like a person or more like a spider, or perhaps your Anansi will be female. It's up to you!

I'd love to see your drawings and comics, if you want to tweet photos of them on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag. Don't forget that the Medusa Malarky comic competition is still going on! You can download your comic Story Starter here.

Oh dear, yesterday someone in Seattle set their house on fire trying to kill a spider with a blowtorch. Do NOT try this at home! Spiders are tricksy. ...Oo, and there's another possible story starter.

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18. summer reading challenge + a royal reading adventure


Photo by Sarah Reeve

Yesterday the Summer Reading Challenge team took me and the Medusa fascinator to Exeter Library to talk and draw with children from St Leonard’s Primary School ...and the Duchess of Cornwall! (Camilla is no stranger to the Medusa hat; you can see hers on a Royal Hats blog here.) I talked with the kids about the Mythical Maze characters I'd drawn, then they helped me draw a four-panel comic about an yeti-Medusa adventure, showing them how easy it is to make a story. Then we all drew Medusa (one kid had something like 46 snakes on his Medusa - it looked like an explosion!).

I talked a bit about how we are still creating myths and legends; no one can second-guess which will be the stories remembered for thousands of years, but we can try our creative best and who knows, perhaps people will still remember our characters for generations to come. I introduced them to my Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve and we pointed out the little Sea Monkey on the poster, saying it was our contribution this year to myth making. Then I invited Camilla to come help me draw a Sea Monkey and she was such a good sport about it! I liked her monkey, it's very cheeky.

And we all sang the Sea Monkey song! Camilla said she wouldn't be able to get the chorus our of her head, and I apologised. (It does have an annoying catchiness to it.)

Photo by Sarah Reeve

By the time we got back to London, people were already sending us links to news reports! Camilla wasn't the only one giggling, after I'd read this Daily Mail article:

Organising this visit was quite a feat! Big thanks to Head of Libraries, Culture & Heritage for Devon Ciara Eastell:

Photo by Sarah Reeve

And to Head Librarian Karen Bowdler and her son Connor:

And to Philip! He's not part of the Summer Reading Challenge but he's a Devon local, and it was SO much more fun doing the event with him helping me draw a bit and singing the Sea Monkey song with me.

And we were both able to dedicate a copy of Seawigs to the Duchess:

Thanks to Philip's wife, Sarah Reeve for taking lots of these photos!

Here's our Summer Reading Challenge gang: Reading Agency director Anne Sarrag, writer Damian Kelleher and publicist Annabel Robinson and gleeful Sea Monkey.

Phew, what an odd day! Now back to work on my picture book... Read the rest of this post

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19. cakes in space: dressing up!

When Oxford University Press publicists asked last year if Philip Reeve and I had any Cakes in Space-themed photos to use for book fair publicity, this was the best we could get together at the time:

But we knew we wouldn't be able to draw outfits onto ourselves for stage events. (Actually, that would be very cool; possibly for another book.) And dressing up in space costumes is... just plain fabulous, so we set about designing something for ourselves. First, I needed a hat! Of course. There's this line in Cakes in Space, when space voyager Astra first meets a killer cake:

The top of the cake flipped open like a pedal-bin lid, revealing a wide mouth and lots of shiny teeth.

...And that seemed a good template for an INTERESTING piece of headgear.

My sculptor friend Eddie Smith offered to help me with the mechanics of it, and he's generally just good at this sort of thing. (He built the structure for my Giant Seawig. Read about that in an earlier blog post.) So here's Eddie, with a rough prototype, made from cardboard, tubing, a turkey-baster squeezeball, and cork and a bit of folded inner tube. Fill the inner tube with air and it tries to straighten; the mouth opens.

Ha ha, here's the more finished version, in action!

Those plastic balls they sell at the pound shop make great eyeballs. I did a test one, to see if it would take the Posca paint pens. Eddie's great to work with, he can solve any problem, and he's just set up a new Facebook page for his 3D art. Do do pop over, have a look, and give him a 'like'!

Now for the rest of the costumes! I can sew a little bit, but I need to take my machine in for reconditioning and I don't have a lot of time, with all the book work and events I've been doing. One day I was in the studio and someone popped by to collect some post that had been delivered, or use my printer or something, and we got talking; she said she designed costumes. A-ha!, I thought. That person was Wendy Benstead, and she has a whole amazing tailor workshop on the top floor of our building. I showed her these drawings I'd made of possible costumes, and she said she could do them!

Here's Wendy with her Head Maker, Heather Coad. (They don't always wear matching outfits.) They do a lot of bridal work, but Wendy's training is in corsetry, and Heather loves cosplay, so they were chuffed to get a more eccentric costume commission.

To help keep costs down, I went out myself to find the materials, to the shops on Goldhawk Road. The silver quilting for Philip's suit was easy to find, but the turquoise proved more difficult. And I steered clear of the lighter blue because I was really worried about looking like a mattress. I got most of the fabrics on that road, but ended up sending away to Germany for the turquoise quilting. (I could have quilted some other fabric myself, but again... time.)

The first thing Wendy did was make what's called a toile, a rough cotton version of the outfit, just to get the pattern worked out. The toile wasn't terribly flattering, but Wendy reassured me that this was normal. It was much more fun when I visited the studio and saw some actual glittery material peeking out...

Here's some of my space dress, still in pieces:

Philip and I went for a couple fittings when he was in town for conferences and such. His suit was loosely based on some we'd seen in the catalogue for the Davie Bowie exhibition at the V&A Museum. Wendy played around with the tubing on my dress; we wanted to get a sort of retro Jetsons look.

I was a bit worried with my cone-shaped skirt, that if I stood up on stage, the audience would be able to see right up my dress. So I found this big-mama petticoat on Ebay, again from Germany. It had a distinct pong of being stored too long in a wet basement when it arrived, but I gave it a good wash and it was fine. Gosh, is it fluffy.

I thought I was going to shape my own wig, using these foam doughnut things, but I couldn't get that hair to do ANYTHING. I wanted it to look sleek and it stayed resolutely messy.

I gave up on the blue hair, but it looked great as a mermaid hairdo for our Manchester Seawigs Parade. Instead, I found some clip-on buns in one of the African hair shops near Peckham Rye station which worked much better. It's sort of a Princess Leia look... PRINCESS LEIA CAKE.

Months earlier, Philip had found some fab space specs in Camden Market while we were there with his family. (I think his son, Sam, actually bought them, and Philip convinced Sam to let him borrow them.)

I wanted to paint my backup pair of glasses white, but I was scared of ruining the finish on them; Eddie recommended painting them first with PVA glue. I tried it on an ugly old pair first, and the glue and paint peeled off easily. And then I got a sheet of some glittery mirror stuff from 4D Model Shop in Shadwell and cut it into a necklace shape. Not bad! We looked like something out of a some British 1970s Sci-fi film, the kind that had slightly cheap sets, but it didn't matter. SUCCESS!

My boots were easy to find on Ebay, but we had a hard time finding glam turquoise boots for Philip. They don't really exist in Internet land. So we settled with white boots from Demonia, which do the job just fine.

And then we were ready... WE CAN SPARKLE! Greetings, earthlings!

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Huge thanks to Wendy, Heather and Eddie for all your help with the costumes! And to Stuart, for putting up with me parading around the house looking weird and asking his opinion on things such as blue hair. He looked super-impressed when I put on the whole costume, and that was a fun moment. Again, do check out Eddie's Facebook page, and you can follow Wendy Benstead on Twitter as @CostumesByWendy. You can also read an interview with her and see more photos in Guise magazine here.

Photo by Michael Thorn, Achuka

Cakes in Space launches at the beginning of September with Oxford University Press.

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20. shark & unicorn: are dragons allowed?

The theme of last weekend's edition of The Funday Times was DRAGONS. Which was very handy, because the dragon is also a big part of this year's Mythical Maze Summer Reading Challenge!

Shark & Unicorn are mucking about with Dragon a bit here.

A cool thing: yesterday I got to meet my Sunday Times editor for the first time! Her name is Karen Robinson, and we'd only ever talked by e-mail. The Funday Times is mostly a film tie-in, but Karen's keen to nurture local talent, and I've been thrilled to have a regular comic in a real broadsheet newspaper. (Well, only six times a year, but regularly six times!)

I had lunch with her and Damian Kelleher, who's been my amazing champion and go-between for Summer Reading Challenge, Funday Times, Kids Week and lots of other things.

And Damian has a new book out this week! A Dog in No-Man's Land ties in with the First World War commemorations and looks great, published by Templar, with illustrations by Gary Blythe, edited by Helen Boyle (of WRD magazine) and designed by Nghiem Ta (who's worked on loads of Templar's 'ology' books).

They've tucked all sorts of letters and postcards in amongst the pages, giving it a wonderful scrapbook-like feel, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it. Congratulations, Damian, Gary, Helen and Nghiem!

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21. summer reading challenge makes a slithering start!

Yesterday evening, The Reading Agency, the British Library and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman launched the Summer Reading Challenge Mythical Maze! (I wore a Medusa hat.)

More about this soon! You can get updates on the Summer Reading Challenge website, their Facebook Page, and follow the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag on Twitter. (Be sure to use the hash tag if you do something fun at your library that you want to share!)

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22. should you go to art college?

I get a lot of people asking me for advice about art college. Should they go? Will it help them get work in illustration, children’s books or comics?

Camberwell Alumni Day

I can’t answer for everyone; art college might be right for you, but wrong for someone else. But here are a few tips from my own experience and looking around at friends and fellow students who have gone to art college:

1. You don’t have to go straight from school to art college.

Everything you do goes into the pot of good experience. First, here’s my background: Illustration wasn’t my focus of study when I did my Bachelor’s Degree in the USA. I studied Russian language and literature at Bryn Mawr, and did what’s called a ‘minor degree’ in History of Art. The art faculty came to a private arrangement with me where they let me take a few more studio classes than was strictly part of the History of Art requirements, so I still got in quite a bit of painting and drawing. But this course of study was a great preparation for being an illustrator. When I took the study-abroad option for my third year, I found huge inspiration in the art galleries and museums of Moscow, and it gave me a unique focus to what would later inspire my own artwork. One of the international schools in Moscow didn’t have an art teacher, so I volunteered teaching art for half a day every Friday. This was rather frustrating, but SUCH good training for later, when I’d be leading workshops and standing on stage, presenting my book to crowds of up to a thousand kids. After my year of study in Moscow, I stayed for a second year, delaying my graduation, and worked at The Moscow Times newspaper as a full-time copy editor and occasional journalist. That experience taught me a lot about how the media works, how to catch mistakes in text, and how to write headlines and photo captions. (I often think of this blog as a series of photo captions.) I learned that I really didn’t want to be a journalist, but I love the freedom of blogging; I can write what I want, when I want, and if I make the occasional mistake, it’s unlikely anyone will care enough to sue me or fire me. I graduated with my BA in Russian in 1999 and didn't start art college until 2005.

Some of my degree show artwork

Mature students rock. When I was on the MA Illustration course at Camberwell, the people who seemed to get the most out of the course were people who had already been working for some time in the field. They knew which questions to ask and how to set themselves challenging projects. People who had come straight from a BA course seemed slightly bewildered that no one was telling them what to do, and they didn’t know how to go out and supplement their training with outside courses, lectures and professional groups because they didn’t really know what they needed. It’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but with a few exceptions, I wouldn’t really recommend anyone go to art college before they’re 30. Study something else first, get work experience. And that way you’ll avoid being part of the young groups who are desperately worried about maintaining their artist image, wearing cool clothes, getting drunk, trying to learn how a washing machine works, etc. Mature students are almost always much more focused.

2. Do your research.

Consider the commute. I was looking at several courses and ended up choosing the one that I could reach the most easily on my bicycle. If a college is local to you, that’s a great bonus because you’ll be more likely to pop in frequently to use its facilities (the printmaking room, the library, etc).

A student-organised printmaking workshop

You can do short practice runs. I took about five courses of evening classes before I committed to art college: one in Book Arts, one in Printmaking, and then I repeated a Children’s Book Illustration course three times with Elizabeth Harbour, because she was such a good teacher. In fact, several of us repeated the course, which set us lots of small, achievable bookmaking projects, and she changed it a bit each time to accommodate us. We got on so well during the course that we set up our own critique group, meeting monthly at a book shop cafe for several years.

Go along to Degree Shows. Have a look at the work, meet the course leader, get a sense of the vibe of the place. Does most of the work look carefully considered or last-minute and rushed? (Camberwell's having its MA degree show next Tuesday.)

A good course is all about the teachers. I lucked out, my year was the first year Janet Woolley came over from Central Saint Martins and started teaching at Camberwell. We had only 14 people on the course (and now it’s something like 70 people). I suspect that the most important thing isn’t the reputation of the art college, it’s the person who’s teaching it. After I started, I talked with people who’d been on the course before Janet took it up and it sounded dreadful. Janet really took an interest in us, deeply cared about us, and always fought our corner. She brought in great guest speakers and had wonderful anecdotes from her own experience, being one of Britain’s leading illustrators. Ask around, find out about a good course leader and follow that person. I'd say bypass the stand-offish, hipster ones for the kind, nurturing ones who listen to what you say and care about you. They're the ones who will want you to do well, not see you as a waste of their time or a potential rival.

With my beloved course leader Janet Woolley, 5 years after graduating

3. Taking the course won’t be enough.

You'll need to go above and beyond requirements. MA courses in the UK are very ‘self-directed’, which means there will be no one assigning you constant homework and cracking the whip over you if you don’t do anything until two weeks before your degree show. I’ve seen people get through courses who only did something like five images. A course certificate means NOTHING to clients and publishers if you can’t back it up with good work. You’ll need to be working every day, pushing yourself, trying new things, signing up for outside courses.

You'll need to find outside training. For me, this included the AOI Business Start-up Classes, SCBWI events, and writing book and event reviews for a website (Nikki Gamble’s Write-Away website). A bunch of us on the course pooled money to hire a model and college space to do life drawing sessions. I’d already been illustrating books for five years, and I knew I needed to learn about illustration legal issues, how to do my taxes properly, how to promote my work, and meet other people also working in children’s books. My course wasn’t specifically a children’s book illustration course, and there was no help if I wanted to learn about writing as well. But SCBWI conferences and forming an outside critique group helped with that. Taking part in small-press comics festivals helped me learn how to make complete small books, print them and promote them.

An early collaborative book

(I’d recommend festivals such as Leeds Thought Bubble, Kendal Lakes festival, London Comica Comiket, ELCAF; go along to one or two to see what they’re like before you book a table.)

Meeting new people at the Gosh Comics book club

Your English needs to be good enough to network properly and understand lectures. If you're reading this, you're probably okay, but beware a course that takes lots of foreign students for the money but doesn't pay much attention to their language skills. Being able to mix with classmates is important to your own growth. I heard a story of some parents in China who sued a London college when their daughters came back from two years's photography study, having learned nothing other than how to switch on their cameras.

You'll need to conquer your shyness; sometimes taking risks will help you meet just the right person. I joined a comics web forum that led to meeting Paul Gravett at a pub, and he put me in touch with publisher David Fickling, who was starting up a new comic for children and scouting for talent. While I made comics for David, he liked what he saw and also signed me up to illustrate a picture book. Check out Laydeez Do Comics, meet people at the monthly London Comica Social Club, go along to the Society of Authors events that are open to the public. If you live in a remote place, get ready to travel a lot.

My first-ever comics table at the Alternative Press Fair... Those Tozo comics on the left belong to David O'Connell, who's now my Jampires co-author!

4. Decide: Part-time or Full-time? I found part-time study was way better than full-time. I think this may have changed at Camberwell, and there may now be a limit to how many lectures you can go to. But I treated the two years like a full-time course and went to all the lectures, getting double value for money. One year of study isn't really enough; you basically have to be working on your degree show project from the start, and you’ll have far less time to experiment and use the print studios. You may not be able to study part-time if you’re a foreign student, for visa reasons.

5. Give your work space to grow and change. When you apply, it's a good idea to have in mind what sort of project you want to set out for yourself. I'd recommend not setting yourself one huge project, such as a long animation or a full-length graphic novel. Everyone I knew who did this got bogged down in it and, since their work was changing, it made their earlier work on the project look out-of-date. I set myself the task of doing several different projects, exploring different ways of working (3D, gouche on coloured paper, egg shapes, comics, whatever took my fancy, really) and then near the end, I chose the best of those things and did a bit more of them for the degree show display. I did finish my course with a picture book dummy, but it looked forced and strained, and more of an exercise in learning how to make books than something publishable. My first publisher quite rightly wasn’t interested in it, he wanted me to illustrate a text he’d found elsewhere.

6. A course can be a good excuse to work. You don’t NEED to pay anyone to set yourself projects for drawing and making books. But sometimes you need to have the excuse so the people around you will give you the space to do it. You can say to them, ‘I need to do this for my course’ and they may have more respect for that than if you’re trying to develop completely on your own. If that chatty friend comes over and stays and stays, you can tell her you have homework. It’s a bit like keeping a studio; a lot of people didn’t think I had a real job until I stopped working from home. It's a lot of money, but is this something you need to do?

7. Get ready to keep a blog while you study.

It’s good practice for learning how to put your work in context, you’ll learn how to talk about it. Blogging can help you remember what you’ve been doing and look back and see how your work has changed and improved. Blogging will help you ease more gently into the world of promoting your work and you won’t have to start from scratch after you graduate.

Drawing of exam time, the scary factor slightly exaggerated

These tips aren’t comprehensive, but hopefully they’re a good start! Good luck! (Check out my FAQ page for more information.)

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23. summer reading challenge: a weird & wonderful mythical world!

Snakes alive! This year's Summer Reading Challenge is off to a great start! Here are a bunch of us at the British Library launch, being our usual quiet, demure selves.

That's illustrator-animator Steve May on the left (who did a great job animating the Mythical Maze trailer), writer-illustrator Liz Pichon, some tall chick in a hat, writer (and former actor, I discovered) Guy Bass, and writer Helena Pielichaty. Oh, and here's Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman! (She's also been super-busy coordinating this weekend's London YA Lit Con.)

One of the things we were asked to do was to make a video saying which book we'd like to recommend to people doing the Summer Reading Challenge. I chose my studio mate Gary Northfield's book, The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs. It's a brilliant read: funny, and beautifully drawn.

Look out for the beautiful dark underwater scene that Gary carved out of a giant sheet of scratchboard! (Here's a peek at it from our studio.) Gary's the person who originally showed me how to do library events, he's ace.

Here you can see me talking about Teenytinysaurs. I think I might have been underwater, too, or just very tired, because I don't think I usually talk that slowly and deeply. Kind of weird sounding. But, hey... FLOURESCENT MEDUSA HAT.

Oo, and can you tell what book the Minotaur is reading? Yup, that would be Teenytinysaurs. (I think it has its horn through a Harry Potter book.)

I'm so enjoying keeping an eye on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag on Twitter. So many libraries are being wonderfully creative with turning the Mythical Maze characters into big displays! Check out this dragon from Church Stretton Library in Shropshire:

Jules Tudor made an awesome yeti! And a whole bunch of displays from Havering Library have totally been cracking me up; check out this slightly sinister Nessie.

And this yeti and unicorn, also by Havering Library! Ha ha! I love these.

Oo, super creative Mythical Map of the children's library by Totton Library!

And I love seeing how the parents are starting to get into it. Tweeted by Ged Hirst:

Lucy Yewman and her mum Sarah Yewman are always game for a book-related activity! Here's Lucy's Medusa Story Starter comic. (You can download yours from the Summer Reading Challenge website.)

And Sarah did one, too! I absolutely love it when adults take part in making comics and other children's activities; it shows kids that this isn't some patronising thing for little 'uns, it's something people can keep doing and enjoying into adulthood. Kids get much more excited about their own work when they realise adults read, write and draw, too. Great comic, Sarah Yewman!

And another comic tweeted in by an grownup, Damon Herd:

There's even a Mythical Maze app! Here's the Solus team, who went about putting it together.

You can play games, see the figures go 3D when you find the matching posters in your library, and learn more about each character. Download it free here from iTunes.

We had three lovely speeches by these VIPs: Chief Executive of The Reading Agency Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the British Library Roland Keating and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman. Thanks for all you do to support reading and libraries (and for the kind words and flowers)! You can see more photos from the launch here on the SRC Flickr page.

Keep an eye on the #SummerReadingChallenge hash tag, @readingagency on Twitter, on Facebook, and on the website itself for frequent updates and new videos. Exciting times!

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24. london YA lit con 2014

Hatted up, suited and booted: just another day heading into the office...

Ha ha! It's so much fun when other people dress up, not just me. Yesterday I went to YA Lit Con (that's Young Adult Literature Convention, or #YALC), held as part of the London Film and Comic Con at Earl's Court in London. On the pavement outside, this lady in her fine threads won my heart... until she shot an arrow straight through it. Aiee!

Seriously, where else do you get this many unaccompanied kids and teenagers together in one place - many with MASSIVE WEAPONS - and have such a well-behaved, literate group of people? These people LOVE stories, and they often don't just want to read them, but become actual characters in these new myths and legends. I love this so much. Here's Martin Chilton's coverage of YALC in The Telegraph:

When I got to the Green Room, I went a little crazy with taking selfies with lots of people there. Steve Cole was super-chuffed to get his photo taken with one of the Doctor Who characters, Paul McGann. (Steve had written BBC books starring Paul's Doctor from '97-'99.) To be honest, I had a bit of a crush on him in the film Withnail and I; there's even two pages in Morris the Mankiest Monster based on screen shots I took of that film.

Hey look, Mark Gatiss! Editor of Oliver and the Seawigs and Cakes in Space Clare Whitston REALLY wanted a photo with him. Wahey! I think he does a great job playing Sherlock Holmes's brother Mycroft in the BBC's Sherlock. Ooh, and writer Catherine Johnson got in for a shot!

Oo, and Clare quite fancied a shot with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Anthony Head. And writer Bryony Pearce!

Then I got SOUNDLY TOLD OFF by one of the red-t-shirted YALC staff, saying that the Green Room is a place of refuge from fans and I was NOT to be taking any more photos. Which was actually pretty gutsy, as she was quite young, and it's not easy to tell people off like that. Respect.

But I did snap a few more very quiet Green Room photos of friendly faces, including YA Lit Con founder and Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman, fellow comics panelist Emma Vieceli, writer Catherine Johnson and writer Charlie Higson.

Malorie's been such a great laureate; this YA Lit Con was her idea, to get books and their authors right in there where so many kids gather for comics, film and dressing up. Then Katherine Woodfine and Booktrust set the gears in motion and put in a LOT of hard work to make it happen. You can read more about it in this piece Malorie wrote for The Guardian:

YALC really was two worlds colliding for me: usually I have my book world friends and my comics friend, and rarely do the two meet. If you look at book festival line-ups, you'd think UK children's book authors are quite evenly divided male-female, but if you go to children's book social events, I usually see a lot more women. Whereas, until recently, I'd go to comics gatherings and sometimes be the only woman in the room. This is all changing and it's great to see the different crowds mixing and merging. The place it really started for me was with the DFC weekly magazine, which is now The Phoenix Comic, and it brought out of the comics woodwork people who can write for children (and many who because solid friends).

I wouldn't label myself as a 'YA writer', but people of all ages have given me great feedback on my Vern and Lettuce comic, and I hate to think Oliver and the Seawigs wouldn't appeal to teens and adults. But as YA isn't specifically 'my thing' (What even is YA?), I chaired a panel, rather than spoke on it. Here's our Going Graphic event with Marcus Sedgwick, Emma Vieceli and Ian Edginton, where we discussed adapting comics from pre-existing text-only books. I think the event went well, despite it being very noisy in the big hall; we had a great turnout and several people live-tweeted it. At dinner that evening, Emma wanted to clarify that what she had said about writing and drawing; she meant that it's easier to get work if you can produce images, not just a script, but that that actual drawing part is WAY harder and more time-consuming than the writing. But I thought it was quite funny when she talked about how she'll sometimes have internal arguments between herself as the writer and as the artist; one side of her can get quite annoyed with the other. You can follow the three of them on Twitter: @marcussedgwick, @Emmavieceli, @IanEdginton. Ian's adapting Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses, with artwork by the amazing John Aggs, and I'm with loads of people who are looking forward to that.

Emma and I did our signings next to each other and it was fun seeing some great costumes parade by. Emma has some MEGA fans for her Vampire Academy series, and she was able to provide a printed prologue for her ongoing BREAKS web comic.

One of the coolest things that happened all day was something I don't usually get to see at book festivals; three black boys, aged somewhere between 10 an 13, hung around for awhile watching me draw and sign in books. Two of them spent time looking through the books and bought themselves copies, and one of them asked me how I went about getting published. I was able to introduce him right there to my Oxford University Press editor, Clare Whitston, and he grilled Clare, quite professionally, about what he needed to do. He's written about aliens, and I suspect this kid could go places. Special kudos to their librarian, whom they said told them about the event, and may have even brought them and let them go off on their own to explore.

Sadly, I didn't get photos of them (and wouldn't have had adult permission to post them), but I DID get a great photo of writer Andy Robb's kid. His whole family came by for copies of Oliver and the Seawigs, and I tweeted this photo. Then Andy tweeted back:

Hooray! This is what YA Lit Con's all about, I really hope loads of kids went away inspired from having seen book creators are real-life people, and realised that they could also write/draw/film/animate their own stories. Ah, here's Andy and gang... with a reviewer who's name I can't remember(?), writer Sally Nicholls, and blogger/writer Laura Heath (aka Sister Spooky, in the hat).

I went to see Natasha Ngan on her panel about blogging, but I got there a bit late and couldn't get close enough to hear anything. I was quite curious to hear about Natasha's fashion blog, Girl in the Lens, from which she earns more of an income than from her books. She works with her partner, Callum McBeth to come up with high-quality photo shoots, and I think the lovely visuals, along with her specific taste, are a big part of the secret to their success. Natasha's publishers had sent along 100 early editions of her new book The Memory Keepers, and they were snatched up so quickly that I didn't even manage to get one.

I don't watch Game of Thrones, but it had a BIG presence at the wider London Film & Comic Con. And of course everyone wanted to sit in the throne, including Mitch Benn, (whom I met for the first time in the Green Room). We nipped over with Emma to the second hall to see the comics area, and Mitch had fun ogling the two Batmobiles. (Thrones photo lifted off Mitch's Twitter feed.)

Here's a trailer for Mitch's book Terra. It looks like it has some links to my upcoming Cakes in Space book with Philip Reeve (both about girls have wacky space adventures), so perhaps I'll see him again at a future space-related event or something.

Lovely book world people! I think they were amused at how normal I looked there in full costume. Photo by Karen Ball of (eek, help me with the name!), me, Sally Nicholls and Jo Cotterill (who's very active on the Girls Heart Books blog).

In fact, there were a LOT of girls there who heart books.

My favourite costumes are always the home-made, self-designed ones. Some of them were well suited to the hot, HOT hall, but... POOR CHEWIE! I really felt for whoever was in there; I think the heat kept the St John's Amubulance service fairly busy.

At the end, all the YALC writers, illustrators and publishers gathered for a party hosted by Booktrust. Here's Claire Shanahan passing out YALC-themed mini cupcakes, baked by Bluebell Kitchen. And a group photo, where Patrick Ness and the rest of us tall folk are hiding at the back.

YALC's still running today, and I'm sure lots of people will reflect on what a great weekend it's been. Huge congratulations to Malorie Blackman, Katherine Woodfine, the whole team at Booktrust, London Film & Comic Con for bringing in such an excellent partner convention, and to my fellow comics panelists. Thanks for making it a great day!

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25. nine world geekfest events!

Hey, I've been hearing awesome things about London's Nine Worlds Convention, running from 8-10 Aug. And the guy who contacted me about doing events was Jared Shurin, who's one of my favourite people in book world. (And I've only met him at Kitschies events a few times; I mostly watch him and his partner Anne Perry getting up to antics online.) Anyway, check it out, there's loads going on. So much, in fact, that a lot of people are booking hotel rooms near Heathrow and staying all weekend.

While you're there, come along to my Cakes in Space event with my co-author Philip Reeve. (And it may be the first time a limited number of advance copies of the books will be available for sale.) I'm getting up to a few things:

Saturday: MONSTERCLASS: Comics 5.00pm - 6.15pm, Room 30
Explore comics with illustrators Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve, and get tips on making your own. Intimate masterclass, max 12 people.

Saturday: Working with Artists: drawing up professional relationships, 6.45pm - 8.00pm
County A
How can artists get the best from their writers, and vice versa? Advice about making great things.
Q&A, with Sarah McIntyre, Emma Vieceli, Gillian Redfearn, Djibril al-Ayad, Adam Christopher

Sunday: Food in Science Fiction, 1.30-2.45pm
How do aliens eat? What do they eat? Do they eat at all? Will they want to eat us? Food is essential to human survival and to the survival of most everything we normally think of as living, so in any journey to an alien world it can never be forgotten. Our panel discuss the different ways in which we might grow or construct food in the future, as well as the role food plays in science fiction of all kinds
Panel: Sarah McIntyre, Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard

Sunday: Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre: CAKES IN SPACE!, 11.45am - 1.00pm, Room 38
Robots! Spaceships! Killer Cupcakes! Batty Battenbergs! Explore the furthest reaches of storytelling and drawing with this space-suited dream team!
The bestselling authors of Oliver and the Seawigs turn their attention to outer space in their new book CAKES IN SPACE. Grab your pencil and get set for zany adventure, in this stage show / creative masterclass / collaborative singing / storytelling spectacular!

Front endpapers for Cakes in Space, published this September by Oxford University Press

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